Probably the biggest barrier to reading more is having to do other things with your time. Novels pass at glacial speeds if the only occasion on which you read them is when you are lying in bed. In the sun, in Egypt, on an island in the Nile, and a week before the troubles erupted, I managed to consume five books in six days. E G Farrell on The Siege at Krishnapur, Peter Guralnick on the early life of Elvis, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Nicholas Murray’s Real Bloomsbury, Jess Walter’s hilarious Financial Lives of the Poets. With a title like that how could I not pick it up.
Luxor, which is where I was, has its literary attractions. Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile was set here, filmed here and written after a stay at the Winter Palace on Corniche el Nile Street in the heart of the town’s heat and dust. Given the association you think you’d see tourists about, camera in one hand, paperback in the other. Copies stacked high in the local Agatha Christie Museum. The author’s name cartouched in hieroglyphics and sold as a papyrus souvenir. But no, the world has moved on.
Down at the Luxor Temple, however, I did find the decadent French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s signature. Rimbaud, genius bard of the deranged senses, had written all he needed to by the age of twenty-one. His Seasons in Hell and Illuminations, works which would eventually spur a whole generation, were abandoned. Libertine Rimbaud, hashish smoker, absinthe drinker, forwent authorship as useless and set off for Africa never to write again.
His graffitied signature is there, atop one of the pillars in the Temple of Thebes. Why do we do this? Leave our names on the rocks of history, scratch who we are onto the brick, carve our initials into trees, write our names on the covers of our books? Once we know how to write it is as if the desire to scribble becomes unstoppable. The Egyptians were masters. Their hieroglyphics cover almost every extant ancient world surface. They are studied by tourists nowadays themselves covered in tattoos. Once you let the world loose on the land there’s no turning back.
Back at the hotel I return to the Financial Lives. Walter’s protagonist is a failed journalist with a young family and a wayward wife who turns to the offering of financial advice to earn a buck. His angle is to package his advice with poetry. Haiku on how to close a business deal. Sonnets on market investment. Free verse talking up hedge funds.
Naturally this approach fails to work. His business falls over just ahead of the world financial meltdown. Like Rimbaud he gives up, cuts and runs. Is the world ready for poetry that works? According to both these guys not yet.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #186